Santa Catalina

As much as we could have stayed, with time against us it was time to return to the mainland and head south. We blagged one of the last spaces available on the return ferry, despite arriving an hour early and before long we were once again at the port in Almirante. The worst thing about our decision to visit Bocas, was that we now had to drive the mountain road again. 

It wasn’t long before the gearstick popped out and caused us to pull over and we hadn’t even started the steeper parts yet. The engine too, was running hotter than it should be. It was a very hot day, but the temperature climbed well above 100 degrees on just the small hills. If we couldn’t manage these, then there was no way we would get over the mountain range. After some more roadside diagnostics, it appears than one of the earth wires for the new fans had failed, leaving us down one fan. It wasn’t a complicated fix, but it still ate away at our day, costing us around an hour. 

At least now we could climb the mountains. We needed to stop a few times anyway, the relentless uphill slog proved a little to long and steep at a few times, but after a while we made it to the reservoir which marks the steepest point in the road. Now instead of managing the engine temperature, we reverted to managing the brakes. At least we had the views, which as I was the passenger this time around I could now appreciate.

Our destination that evening was Los Cangilones de Gualaca, a nice looking canyon that was just over half away from Bocas and David. It was the perfect spot to stop and break up what was turning into an incredibly long drive. With the slow road, and our many stops we reached the canyon with only an hour or so of daylight remaining. We had read that the police sometimes don’t permit parking by the entrance, but we decided to chance our luck. We had only been there an hour or so before the flashing lights appeared…. Here we go..

Two policemen approached the car. They then warned us that it was dangerous here because of all the snakes and that we should make sure we shut our doors at night and to watch the cats. Then with big smiles they gave us their names and welcomed us to Panama, before saying they would be patrolling the area that night if we needed anything, before departing with a friendly wave. It was nice to settle down after a long day knowing we had a safe spot to stop and that the police were happy with us being there. 

The night was one of the quietest in a long time. No traffic passed us at all. In the morning I headed down to see the canyon before it got busy for the weekend. After the heat rainfall yesterday, the waters had been a murky brown when we arrived, but now they were starting to clear and it was a beautiful place to be. 

As I stood on the side, the police car pulled up on the opposite bank and waved at me, before driving off again. Back to the camper to pack away. Another long drive awaited us and as it hit 9 o’clock, the tour buses began to arrive. 

Our next stop was Santa Catalina. From one coast to the other. Here on the pacific side of the country, was supposed to be some amazing diving and snorkelling around the Coiba island. We hadn’t planned to go, as it’s very expensive, but after many rave reviews from other travellers at the hostel we decided it shouldn’t be missed. As much as we would have liked to dive, we settled for snorkelling as it was half the price. It’s very easy to find a tour as the little village of Santa Catalina is mainly made up for tour agencies. After hours of driving through remote countryside, it’s a little odd to suddenly be in the midst of it all again. Before long we had booked a tour for the next day and had the remainder of the afternoon to find somewhere to camp. 

Despite being a popular destination, there’s not many options. There’s one hostel, or several hotels, but the place caters more to backpackers than campers. We parked up by the river and wandered around for a bit, before deciding that where we were parked right now was actually the best spot. We went and asked the bar if they minded us stopping there. They were incredibly friendly and said we were welcome to stay. Result. Or so I thought. 

We were aware of the reputation that the place has for being a bit of a party town, and I suppose it should have set off some warning bells when we saw them setting up a DJ booth. It was also the weekend. Once the music started up early evening, we hoped it wouldn’t go on for too long as the bar was deserted. However, by 12pm it showed no signs of stopping and we had to be at the tour agency by 7.30am the next day. We decided to move to another spot further out of town in an attempt to get some sleep, but Aimee wasn’t having it. Someone had set off fireworks very close to us earlier and she sat stubbornly on the other side of the fence, refusing to come through. Eventually, we grabbed her and drove out. We found the other spot and parked up again. The music was still audible, but now at least it was background noise. We needed have worried though, half an hour later they turned it off. Tired and annoyed, we finally got some sleep.

We were up early the next morning and now we could actually see where we had parked. A few piles of building materials next to us made it look like there was some kind of work happening in the area. Sure enough, at 7am the builders turned up. We looked at each other in confusion. They weren’t expecting a camper van and we weren’t expecting builders at 7am on a Sunday. Still, they didn’t seem to mind and before long we had packed up and were heading back to the village. 

The tour agency was pretty full, two boats would be going out with about ten people on each. Some divers, some snorkelers. We collected our gear and headed for the sea. It’s about an hour boat ride to the island where we would be visiting the first site. The boats sped forwards across the surprisingly wavy sea. 

It was a bit of a treat for us to be here, as at a cost of $85 a person it wasn’t cheap. Travelling as always a balance between conserving money and actually enjoying yourself. I hoped that it would be worth the money. We were hopeful though. Just on the boat ride alone we had seen dolphins, a water snake and two turtles. A good start! 

Our little boat pulled up on the beach and we set about putting on our fins and soaping up the masks to stop them fogging up. Then off we went. We had been in the water less than ten minutes before we saw another turtle. Then two gigantic rays swam below me. Before we finished the trip, we had spotted some sharks. There was another two sites to be explored yet and already I had seen three things I had never seen before. I could now understand the rave reviews we had heard over and over again while we waited in our hostel. 

Back on the boat, we powered our way over to the next site. Again, turtles swam within touching distance and some more sharks flitted along the floor below us.

As it approached mid day, we headed to another large island to eat lunch and warm up. Despite the sea being pretty warm, the short speed boat rides in the shade in-between could be a bit on the cold side. Our guide had brought sandwiches and fresh pineapple for our group and we at on the beach which was fairly busy with other tours doing the same thing. 

Only half way through the day we still had two more sites to visit. While the larger sea life was impressive, I also enjoyed seeing some of my old favourites. The cowfish and the parrot fish. The photography is certainly not the best, partly due to my inability to hold my breath and get close enough and also partly due to the waterproof case for the camera which was leaking. I spent all day swimming around holding it out of the water and it still rapidly filled with water especially if you put it under pressure. Still, you get the idea. 

I think our group was all pretty tired by the time we finished the final snorkel and got back on the boat. This itself was not the easiest task. A small speedboat with no ladder it required some leg ups and rather undignified crawling to get in an out. I was glad we had learned to dive in Utila, where there was a lot more space. As we sped back towards the mainland, we once again had dolphins swimming next to the boat, the perfect end to our day. 

After our rather horrible night, we headed just out of the town to a campsite. It was going to be far quieter out here and we could also charge up our batteries. Having parked in the shade all day for the sake of the cats, we were running a bit low. We stopped in the pretty garden of a local hostel, where the owner assured us that the music would not be going on late. The only thing we worried about was whether the cats would try to kill the baby chicks running around the garden, but fortunately they left them alone and we enjoyed the peace and quiet before the next day’s drive, another 4 hours, back into the mountains of Santa Fe. 

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